Posted by: Michelle Mitton | August 11, 2008

Darkness in Alaska

Darkness in AlaskaRight about now I’m beginning to think about daylight. I’m watching it slip away because as of June 22nd our allotment began decreasing, heading into that downward slide toward December 21st when we’ll get the shortest day of the year. When the light first started ebbing we only lost a few seconds each day–hardly worth mentioning–but as our rotation around the sun gains distance we see the sun less and less until we’re losing nearly six minutes each day.

I’m already starting to notice it, it used to be that I could stay up all night and still see the flower beds out front and I rarely turned on our lights–we didn’t need to–but today the sun rose at 5:59 am and will set at 10:08 pm, a difference of 5 minutes and 30 seconds from yesterday. By this same time next week we’ll be down by nearly 40 more minutes of precious light and still gaining speed.

Some places get to hear about tropical storm warnings on the evening news, some hear about traffic jams, we listen for light. When Andrew and I lived in North Dakota we got a kick out of how every newscast included the price of the popular wheat strains (I had no idea there were so many) but here the daylight is our big commodity and everyone wants to know exactly where our daily accounts stand.

By the time the solstice hits it feels as if it’s dark all day long, especially if you have a run of cloudy days which are common that time of year. Most of December and January if I’m driving even at high noon I’ll keep my headlights on–not that it’s midnight-black but it’s always rather dusky and dark. The kind of weather that would be described in a screenplay as “brooding” and “oppressive.”

The distances here can make you feel isolated as it is, there are 700 miles of Alaska in nearly any direction and most of that land is uninhabited–at least by creatures that aren’t interested in eating me–but if the feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world in a frozen wilderness doesn’t get you the solitude the darkness brings makes it even worse. It’s cold outside so people aren’t out as much, they make quick dashes from their cars to the office and you won’t see neighbors outside chatting at the mailboxes. In the winter we can go weeks without seeing our neighbors, whom we pretty much expect are either trying to keep warm or are off on a beach in Hawaii, and the plows pile the snow berms higher and higher along the curbs until streets look like paths through a maze and your view into the neighbor’s yard starts to disappear inch by inch.

But I can live with this, for me the worst part of winter is the little bit of worry I get when the real cold sets in that if there were a natural disaster–earthquakes being the main concern–or an economic crisis where the shipping lines to Anchorage were suddenly interrupted we’d be on our own. If there were a disaster where we couldn’t use the gas to heat our house (something we need six months out of the year easily) we could freeze to death.

This might sound paranoid but it’s probably the mom in me. Andrew makes frequent trips all year long up to Barrow, the northernmost point in North America, and every time he goes up there in winter I have this little tiny worry that if something happens–however slight the chances–that he’d be stranded on the outermost limits of the world in one of the harshest climates on earth.

A couple years ago one of the many Alaskan villages–I think it was unlucky Kivalina–was struck by a winter storm and the whole town lost power. I remember watching the news and sharing the panic that went out about how to get help to the village which was only accessible by air and with the storm raging the planes couldn’t land. They were without heat in temperatures 20 and 30 degrees below zero.

Eventually rescue planes made it in and everyone was safe but the idea of being stuck like that–especially with my children–scares me if I ever care to dwell on it. I don’t. The best I can do is keep an emergency supply of food, fuel and emergency gear on hand and pray that disasters wait until spring.

Living here it can be easy to find the negative in the situation, in winter when you go to school or work it’s easy to miss the few hours of daylight we might get but the key to survival is using what you’ve been given. There may only be three or four hours of dusky light but those are the hours I use to go outside and get my errands run or to shovel the driveway–anything to soak up some rather weak rays.

I also like to look at it as a time to hibernate from the favorite things that take up time in the summer–gardening, mowing, washing the cars–so I can find the hours I need to write or read or try that new apple pie recipe. There’s not much of a temptation to run outside and slack off on my chores when the windows are frozen shut and the moon is still out. Besides, luckily we live at a time when we don’t have to do everything by candlelight so I can light up every light bulb in the house if I want and drive the gloom away.

But the biggest payoff is the Northern Lights.

Starting in about October the aurora start to become visible again. They’re strongest around March 5th and if you happen to be awake on a clear night (which is always a cold night) you might get a show.

Rippling across the sky as if someone’s shaking out a quilt, they run along in greens, purples, reds and blues and if you get really lucky–if the solar winds are extra strong–you might even get to hear them crackle and pop.

They writhed like a brood of angry snakes,
hissing and sulphus pale.
They rolled around with soundless sounds
like softly bruised silk.

-Robert Service, “Ballad of the Northern Lights”

You see them best when you’re away from the lights of the city but there have been times when I’ve stood in the driveway with the porch lights shining down and stared at the colors twisting above my head as if someone’s trying to make up for all that darkness and isolation we’ve had to endure.

And you know what? It kind of does.

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